Stephanie Chang reflects on the difficulties of 2020, the opportunities it has created for change, and pumpkin pie. Graphic by Denzel Boyd
Stephanie Chang reflects on the difficulties of 2020, the opportunities it has created for change, and pumpkin pie.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang says she sees a lot of Michigan’s long-term challenges in sharp focus after 2020, but finds solace in a tough year with her children and pumpkin pie.

DETROIT, Mich.—In March, as Michiganders reeled in the wake of the pandemic’s arrival in Michigan, thousands of Detroiters lacked the access to clean water they needed to adopt some of the basic measures that help slow the spread of a disease. 

Detroit’s water crisis had, over six years, shut over 100,000 residents of the city out of access to clean water, and even with the city pledging to restore service in advance of the pandemic it took weeks for most of those service lines to get restored. By the end of the year, though, Detroit had managed to extend the moratorium on water shutoffs through 2022.

For Stephanie Chang, who represents Detroit in Michigan’s state senate, this is just the beginning. 

“It’s an issue of human dignity. It is a moral issue because we are the Great Lakes state, we’re surrounded by fresh water.” Chang told The ‘Gander. 

“It’s a common sense issue, it’s a public health issue. We know that there is a greater likelihood of getting certain illnesses if you’re on a block with water shutoffs.” 

Chang told the story of a constituent who was hospitalized with a preventable illness before the pandemic as a result of water shutoffs, and that constituent was far from alone. Experts warned Detroit in 2017 that dehydration from water shutoffs threatened the health of people with chronic diseases; an inability to use water in cooking can result in preparing less healthy meals and relying more heavily on sugary drinks; and poor hygiene from an inability to bathe both spreads conditions like MRSA and can exacerbate mental health issues.

But more than that, Chang argues that in a state naturally blessed with an ample supply of fresh water, the fact that such a basic necessity isn’t available for people isn’t just a public health emergency, but a crisis to the collective conscience of Michiganders. 

“We do need to address this going forward in a long-term fashion,” she said. “We’ve been championing water affordability plans for a long time now, we’ve got amazing water warriors who have been working on this issue for literally over a decade and a half. And we’re just going to keep pushing forward until we are able to get something done.”

Chang isn’t just focusing on water issues, though. She’s trying to help address the next crisis looming over Detroit—evictions. 

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Because of a combination of a coronavirus-induced shattering of the economy from a global to a local scale, and the ticking clock to the date when the moratorium on evictions will—eventually—end, Michigan faces what state Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Welch called a “tsunami” of eviction cases coming in the near future. 

Like issues with water shutoffs, Chang explained the problem isn’t new but has been cast in sharp relief by the way the coronavirus has proved a stress test on the economic health of America.

“In my district, which includes a large portion of Detroit and also a lot downriver communities, we see rent has been increasing and housing is just going to continue to become unaffordable,” Chang explained. “Same thing with water, we have to address the immediate situation and continue the eviction moratoriums, but, however, I think that it’s again really important that we look to long-term solutions.”

To that end, Chang wants to allow local governments to look at rent policies. At the moment, state law prevents cities and towns from considering local rent ordinances with very few exceptions. She wants to give local governments the power to make those decisions for themselves. That, she said, will let cities look at creative, innovative solutions to the underlying causes of evictions that can be tailor-made to each community.

Those solutions, combined with a commitment to affordable housing and refueling the funding for the state’s eviction diversion program, can weather that tsunami, Chang said.

“This is something that is, again, long overdue,” she said. “But with COVID-19, I think it has really highlighted how big of an issue this is.”

2020 didn’t just bring the challenges ahead into focus for Chang, but sharpened her passions as well. She’s proud to be a parent in the Legislature to the point that she has a hashtag encouraging other women to become a #MommyLegislator as well. Becoming a parent early in her first term didn’t change her priorities, she said, but fueled her determination. Of course, it also means a busy life. With a demanding job and two kids, Chang has had trouble making time for some of the intricate baking she enjoys. Until, that is, this year.

For the first time in years, she was able to make pumpkin pies from scratch this autumn. Pumpkin pie, homemade crust and all, is one of her favorite things to bake, and that’s an experience she now gets to share.

“Now that I have a somewhat helpful 5-year-old, she likes helping me bake things too,” Chang smiled.

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